Tuesday 20 February 2018

Great comedy aims to leave them wincing

When Ricky Gervais let Hollywood have it, he was following the tradition of Lenny Bruce, writes Louis Jacob

I couldn't have been more impressed by Ricky Gervais's performance at the Golden Globes last week. Gervais opened up on just about every Hollywood star in sight and let the organisers of the Golden Globes have it into the bargain.

Such was the test for Gervais: you take a comedian with a sense of humour and put him in a situation that stinks with the potential for mischief. If he calls it as he sees it and takes people out of their comfort zone, it's a sign that he might become great. If he takes the easy option and lets them off the hook, he may still be considered 'funny' but he will never be remembered as 'great'. That is the eternal code of comedy. If a comedian sees BS, he's got to go for it.

Early reports suggested the organisers were not impressed and that Gervais would not return as host, and would never again be nominated for a Golden Globe.

One member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association -- which organises the awards -- was reported on the web as saying; "Ricky will not be invited back to host the show next year, for sure." He continued: "Any movie he makes, he can forget about getting nominated. He humiliated the organisation last night and went too far with several celebrities whose representatives have already called to complain."

What they hadn't accounted for is that all the great comedians have the potential to hit the dark side. It's like what African American comedy legend Steve Harvey once said about the quest for laughs: "If we gotta drag your momma into this thing, we will. Whatever we gotta do."

The great Lenny Bruce was considered to be a nasty piece of work. He was apparently amoral. He habitually used excessive profanity. By the end of his career, he was black-listed from nearly every comedy club in the US and owners faced huge fines for including him in their shows. He took drugs with total abandon and organised orgies.

But he had a God-given talent for ripping apart the Catholic Church, the police, and the political structures which protected them both.

In April 1964, he was arrested in Greenwich Village by undercover detectives who had attended a show. He was put on trial for using obscenities such as "dwarf motherf***er". In November 1964, after a circus-like, six-month trial, he was convicted and sentenced to four months in a workhouse. This was despite petitions of support from high-profile personalities such as Woody Allen and Bob Dylan and a host of journalists and television and radio personalities. He was set free on bail pending an appeal but died of an apparent overdose before it was decided.

For all this, Bruce is remembered as a man who riled against political correctness and told the truth about the state of things as he saw them. Nowadays, he is simultaneously lauded as "a crusader and a martyr", "a moralist and a preacher" and "a saint and a sinner". He was revered by legendary comedians Richard Prior and Bill Hicks. They saw him as a revolutionary who broke the mould and paved the way for their own outrageous brands of comedy. He is now seen as the godfather of alternative comedy.

The greatest provocateur of them all, Oscar Wilde, once wrote: "A true friend stabs you in the front." It is easy to see why the real legends of Hollywood like Robert De Niro and Johnny Depp are uncomfortable with the stink that wafts around at 'love-ins' like the Golden Globes, and judging by their reactions to Gervais (De Niro looked like he would wet himself with laughter) you could tell that they weren't too miffed that a bit of cold water was being splashed around.

De Niro even broke with his custom of not making speeches at these awards and had a dig of his own. On receiving his lifetime achievement award, he suggested that most of the people in the room probably hadn't seen his best movies, and that maybe he should bring out a box-set. De Niro knew Gervais was doing these prima donnas a favour. This was a room full of people who make a mint parodying 'real life'. If they feel insecure when 'real life' has a little joke on them, there is a good chance that they are, at worst, conceding to a dangerous neurosis, at best, taking themselves a touch too seriously.

Maybe even the Golden Globe organisers learned a valuable lesson from Gervais. Judging by their complete U-turn on the affair in a final statement on Tuesday, they discovered the "seriousness of being seen to take themselves too seriously".

And suddenly discovering a sense of humour, they gushed: "We loved the show. It was a lot of fun and obviously has a lot of people talking. When you hire a comedian like Ricky Gervais, one expects in-your-face, sometimes outrageous material. Certainly, in this case, he pushed the envelope and occasionally went too far. The show's bosses would never condone some of his personal remarks. Overall, however, the show was among the best we've ever had and we were pleased."

In Bob Dylan's song about Lenny Bruce, the opening line goes: "Lenny Bruce is dead but his ghost lives on and on. Never did get any Golden Globe award." Stand-up comedy at its best remains a counter-culture phenomenon. As Gervais is aware, it's not the certainty of now being excluded from future Golden Globes that is the greatest threat to his credibility. It's the danger of indulging Hollywood with a cuddly, watered-down version of Ricky Gervais, who keeps it in its comfort zone.

Sunday Independent

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